The Feedback Dilemma

The Feedback Dilemma

By Deb Manning


Lately, I have been thinking a lot about feedback: Why we need it, why we fear it, and why it is so difficult to both give and receive.


As a psychologist, I am familiar with theories on human development and our need for autonomy and self-efficacy. We all strive, from our earliest years, to have independent control over what we do, how we do it and where we are going. From the 18-month-old vigorously wriggling to be free of her parent’s arms and run toward a toy, to the 85-year-old that fiercely defends her desire to keep her driver’s license so she can drive herself to the store.


We are also designed for growth and learning. Our brains are constantly taking in new information by accommodating, consolidating and generating new patterns of thought and behavior. This is the foundation of neural plasticity and underpins growth-mindset initiatives in business and elsewhere.


These different human needs and propensities may explain our “love-hate” relationship with feedback. We want to be the boss of our own lives, independent and forward focused, and yet we also want and need to learn from our mistakes and the barriers we often unintentionally create for ourselves and others.


So how do we improve our relationship with feedback? It probably sounds self-interested, but I think the best way to do this is to learn and develop your skills. Targeted training can help people be more effective (more constructive, more objective, more empathic) givers and more appreciative (less defensive, more curious, more empathic) receivers. We train first, then practice. And then practice some more. Practice doesn’t necessarily “make perfect” but it does increase efficacy.


When I have suggested to people that they need to “practice” feedback, they often give me a raised eyebrow. Surely, I am not telling them to run around looking for ways to critique their coworkers or teammates just to practice their skills? When this is the question, I point out that they are letting their desire for efficacy trump their need for growth.


A much easier tactic is to be the receiver. Ask for feedback and practice being in growth mode. And if you truly want to practice, you must ask the right question – or at least avoid asking the wrong question! Instead of “do you have feedback for me?” ask, “what one thing can I do to better support your work?”, “what one thing can I do to help you feel recognized for your contributions?” or, “what one thing can I do to help us work better together?” Pick up this pattern and apply it to whomever you can.


The ancillary benefit of practicing feedback is that you will positively change the dynamic of your relationships. When we ask for feedback, we demonstrate vulnerability and openness to the expertise of others. Doing so builds trust and other elements that help us get more gently over the speed bumps that occur both in the workplace and our personal lives.


We all need to get better – both at giving and receiving feedback. What one thing can you do to improve?